The Salem Witch Trials

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Thomas Fisk et al. (essay date 1692)

SOURCE: "The Penitance of the Jurors," in Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648–1706, edited by George Lincoln Burr, 1914. Reprint by Barnes & Noble Books, 1972, pp. 387–88.

[In the following excerpt from a document written in the year of the trials, Fisk, representing the Salem jurors, admits that they were deluded and mistaken in convicting the accused witches, and humbly asks forgiveness.]

… We whose names are under written, being in the Year 1692 called to serve as Jurors, in Court at Salem, on Tryal of many, who were by some suspected Guilty of doing Acts of Witchcraft upon the Bodies of sundry Persons:

We confess that we our selves were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand the mysterious delusions of the Powers of Darkness, and Prince of the Air; but were for want of Knowledge in our selves, and better Information from others, prevailed with to take up with such Evidence against the Accused, as on further consideration, and better Information, we justly fear was insufficient for the touching the Lives of any, Deut. 17. 6, whereby we fear we have been instrumental with others, tho Ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon our selves, and this People of the Lord, the Guilt of Innocent Blood; which Sin the Lord saith in Scripture, he would not pardon, 2 Kings 24. 4, that is we suppose in regard of his temporal Judgments. We do therefore hereby signifie to all in general (and to the surviving Sufferers in especial) our deep sense of, and sorrow for our Errors, in acting on such Evidence to the condemning of any person.

And do hereby declare that we justly fear that we were sadly deluded and mistaken, for which we are much disquieted and distressed in our minds; and do therefore humbly beg forgiveness, first of God for Christ's sake for this our Error; And pray that God would not impute the guilt of it to our selves, nor others; and we also pray that we may be considered candidly, and aright by the living Sufferers as being then under the power of a strong and general Delusion, utterly unacquainted with, and not experienced in matters of that Nature.

We do heartily ask forgiveness of you all, whom we have justly offended, and do declare according to our present minds, we would none of us do such things again on such grounds for the whole World; praying you to accept of this in way of Satisfaction for our Offence; and that you would bless the Inheritance of the Lord, that he may be intreated for the Land.







Perry Miller (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "The Judgment of the Witches," in The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, 1953. Reprint by Beacon Press, 1961, pp. 191–208.

[In the following excerpt, Miller examines the impact made on the witchcraft trials by jeremiads, or Puritan sermons, which emphasized that God brings affliction on sinners and stressed the need for confession and repentance.]

The most curious of all the facts in that welter we call Salem witchcraft is this: if you expunge from the record those documents that arise directly out of the affair, and those which treat it historically, like the Magnalia or Hale's and Calef's accounts, and a few twinges of memory such as appear in Sewall's Diary , the intellectual history of New...

(This entire section contains 12358 words.)

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England up to 1720 can be written as though no such thing ever happened. It had no effect on the ecclesiastical or political situation, it does not figure in the institutional or ideological development. Aside from a few oblique lamentations in election sermons (briefly noted amid the catalogue of woes), for twenty-eight years this cataclysm hardly appears in the record—until summoned from the deep by opponents of inoculation as a stick to beat the clergy for yet another "delusion." Only in 1721 does it begin to be that blot on New England's fame which has been enlarged, as much by friends as by foes, into its greatest disgrace.

To this statement, there is one qualification: after 1692, not only is the episode seldom referred to, but the very word witchcraft almost vanishes from public discourse. While the clergy were steadily expanding the list of possible afflictions which would surely befall the community, the place reserved by Cotton Mather's Memorable Providences for the threat of demonic intervention is suddenly vacated. This silence speaks volumes: although new and fascinating abuses are relentlessly explored, no one any longer tries to induce a confession of sinfulness by predicting a spate of witches.

I do not need to demonstrate that belief in witchcraft was, for the seventeenth century, not only plausible but scientifically rational. No more tedious pages exist than those devoted to the thankless task of exonerating the Puritans, on this score, from the charge of superstition. Despite such efforts, thousands of Americans are still persuaded that Cotton Mather "burned" witches in Salem; further refutation becomes a bore. Still, it is difficult to see clearly and objectively just what was involved; language itself proves treacherous, and analysis rebounds upon the analyst. Critics of the Puritan priesthood—often children of that caste—have wrenched the story from its context; sober historians, trying to restore the true setting, slide into the accents of apology and gloss over a crime. One may appreciate that witchcraft was as real an offense in 1692 as murder or treason and yet remain profoundly convinced that what went wrong at Salem is something for which Puritanism and New England are justly to be indicted, not in terms of a more "enlightened" age, but specifically in their own terms—in those of the covenant.

I dislike dissociating myself from previous scholarship, but many students, including some who strive to place these occurrences within the intellectual frame of the period, fail to consider them in relation to the whole scheme of thought. They have read the contemporaneous literature of witchcraft, but not the weekly sermons. We shall avoid confusing ourselves by an irrelevant intrusion of modern criteria only when we realize that what struck Salem Village was intelligible to everybody concerned—instigators, victims, judges, and clergy—within the logic of the covenant. That in the end the irruption nearly wrecked this intellectual structure—that it left the scaffolding dangerously shaken and out of kilter—is its deepest meaning in the actual language of the community.

Let us remember, without concerning ourselves about the psychosis of the hysterical girls who precipitated the panic by their reckless accusations of an array of tormentors, that an appearance of witchcraft among the afflictions of New England was from the beginning as much to be anticipated as Indian raids; by 1692 several instances had been encountered, and a more organized assault was altogether predictable. Some in Salem Village may have read Memorable Providences, but they needed no book to set them off. Accusations and interrogations were already in train when the former minister, Deodat Lawson, came back to the town from Scituate to deliver a Thursday lecture, on March 24; he knew something of what was going on, and had even heard that victims complained of being tormented by specters of his wife and daughter, both three years dead. Charles Upham, writing from the point of view of 1867, felt that Lawson must have prepared his sermon in advance and have come to the village deliberately intending to blow up the flames. But Upham had not studied the jeremiads. Lawson did not require preparation: the formula, with its neatly boxed heads of argument and application, with its rhetorical tags already minted, was as ready to be wheeled into action as a loaded fieldpiece. Of course his sermon did nothing to allay the panic, but what Lawson applied to the situation was not malicious incendiarism; it was traditional federal wisdom. What other wisdom was there?

He made the standard points: afflictions come upon a people from God (or by His permission) because of their sins; the only relief is prayer and repentance, to be manifested by confession of the provoking deeds; meanwhile, the duty of civil magistrates, in the interest of public welfare, is vigorously to suppress disorders and to punish criminals, above all those who refuse to repent and confess. He used customary artifices of style to "improve" the present distress, exactly as every preacher enhanced military disasters or epidemics. In the light of accumulated experience, his discourse was no more "irrational" than the speech of Edward Everett at Gettys-burg. So recognizable an exercise of the type was Lawson's Christ's Fidelity the only Shield against Satan's Malignity that upon its publication in Boston, masters of the form—the Mathers, Willard, James Allen, Baily, Charles Morton—happily endorsed it. That it reënforced the resolve of the magistrates to ferret out evildoers cannot be questioned: since 1689 clerical leaders, worried lest the royal charter should prevent magistrates from coöperating, had redoubled the effort to exhort them; Lawson followed precedent, and besought Hathorne not to bear a sword in vain.

But, as we know, the list of sins and their afflictions was long and daily becoming longer; no single offense stood by itself, for all were interconnected. The pattern of depravity was so subtle that an exclusive concentration upon one vice easily became encouragement of another. Lawson knew that already the specter of his dead (and sainted) wife was being accused; this was a highly suspect piece of witchcraft which might the more readily be explained on the grounds of a disordered "phansie"—as Increase Mather in the Essay had accounted for previous apparitions in New England. For decades the ministers had been denouncing—without effect—an increase of backbiting, talebearing, and rash censuring; Lawson recognized that a vigorous prosecution of real witches might offer the temptation, to a people exacerbated by a series of peculiarly acrimonious village quarrels, to imagine that the specters of any or all their neighbors were let loose. So, even thus early, he delivered the momentous caution: the Devil may represent good and decent citizens as afflictors of others; therefore, to accuse any without sufficient grounds will have a pernicious influence, will bring in confusion and an abundance of evil.

This much we may say the jeremiad (as developed up to 1692) could do: on the one hand exhort to action and on the other caution against headlong zeal. But what Lawson saw with his own eyes, the day before he spoke, was as real as any Indian rush upon a frontier town; the situation did not require subtle discriminations concerning the role of specters. Gestures of the accused produced physical and visible effects upon the afflicted, "so that they are their own Image." This was as welcome to the investigating authorities as first-hand evidence would be to a modern prosecuting attorney eager not to have to rely on circumstantial testimonies.

Through the next weeks and months doubt spread, more slowly than we might wish, but at about the pace we ought to expect. The Court of Oyer and Terminer, with Stoughton presiding, and with Se-wall, Richards, Gedney, Wait Winthrop, Sargent, Corwin on the bench, was trusting far too much to "spectral evidence." It was not insisting upon the solid common-law principle that an act must be seen by two witnesses. The doctrine of the specter was as old as the science of witchcraft itself: as Cotton Mather summarized it, once a witch signs the book and covenants with hell (the special heinousness of this crime was the fact that it, like regeneration, took the form of a covenant), Satan delegates to him a devil who, taking on the likeness of the witch, executes his behests, such chores as pinching his enemies, blinding them, burning their houses or wrecking their ships. True, the specter, like the sorcerer's apprentice, might gain mastery over the master and compel him to molest those with whom he had no quarrel; but still, the specter belongs to the culprit and, if seen, is a fair presumption against him, just as a dog may lead the police to its owner.

Nonetheless, experience had shown that spectral evidence must be handled with care. New England intellectuals probably had not heard, "The spirit that I have seen may be the Devil"; but in more authoritative works they had learned that he might assume a pleasing shape and abuse the credulous in order to damn them. Wherefore not every specter was to be taken for the person he resembled. But the court at Salem—mainly because of Stoughton's conviction—committed itself to the proposition that no innocent person could, under the providence of God, be represented by a specter, and that therefore those who were manifested were guilty. That the accused should deny their confederacy was only to be expected: having become the Devil's children, they could confess only with his permission. Upon these (as Cotton Mather called them) "philosophical schemes of witchcraft," they proceeded, as juries have been known to act upon a settled pre-conviction that no white woman can possibly offer sexual provocation to a Negro.

There is no evidence that any minister ever taught this doctrine, or that more than three accepted it; both Mathers, the principal theorists in the country, had explicitly warned against it. As early as May 31, Cotton was begging John Richards not to lay too great stress on this sort of testimony, because—here was the issue—"It is very certain that the divells have sometimes represented the shapes of persons not only innocent, but also very virtuous." Indeed, the riddle of Cotton Mather's part in the business is bound up with his prophecy that if once unrestricted credit were yielded to diabolical representations, "The Door is opened!" Had the court heeded his recommendation, there would have been no executions; if, having made it, he had thereafter kept his mouth shut, he would be a hero today.

By June 15, doubt was spreading rapidly, and a puzzled Phips, trying his level best to be a pious magistrate, asked advice from the local association of ministers. In the Magnalia Cotton says, with that unction which infects even his most worthy actions, that the answer "was drawn up at their desire by Mr. Mather the younger, as I have been informed." The Return of Several Ministers, by whomever written, is a significant document in the history of New England because, first, it acknowledges that the ministers were in a quandary of their own making, and, second, it shows that even in a regime where they had contrived to seat their own governor and a Council of their own choosing, and where the court at Salem was made up of professing brethern, they really no longer had any power. The court was proceeding on a principle of its own; the clergy might counsel otherwise, but were prisoners of their own reiterations; they were obliged by their previous utterances to conclude with the familiar exhortation that civil authority should press forward to a vigorous prosecution of the obnoxious—which Stoughton was heartily doing without their encouragement. At that moment, nobody quite heard the crash, but a central pillar of the jeremiad, shored up after 1689, tumbled to earth. This was the last time that a ruler of Massachusetts, in an hour of hesitation, formally and officially asked advice of the churches.

In the eyes of posterity, The Return is vitiated by its concluding paragraph. This must be read as a formality which the ministers were obliged to observe. The really important paragraph is the sixth, which asserts positively that a demon can appear in the shape of an innocent person, and that therefore a mere charge of representation does not constitute adequate grounds for conviction. On August 17, Cotton Mather was again insisting, this time to John Foster, that spectral evidence is fallacious; during the summer he so far admitted his awareness of the court's incompetence as to propose the remedy he had proved efficacious in the case of Martha Goodwin: he offered to take six or more of the afflicted into his house and cure them by prayer, without any trials or executions. Finally, on October 3 Increase Mather—and he alone—brought the murders to an end by issuing Cases of Conscience, which so unequivocally condemned spectral evidence that Phips at last saw his duty clear and terminated the court—although by that time twenty persons had been executed and a raging Stoughton, as his final gesture, signed a warrant (which Phips annulled) for eight more.

We may imagine—though there is no way of telling—that had The Return spoken as emphatically on June 15 as Cases of Conscience did on October 3, the frenzy would have been arrested. Lacking such guidance, between these dates the madness had to work itself out: a reckless use of spectral evidence gave rein to the seething passions and festering animosities of New England. Prisons became crowded, every man's life lay at the mercy of any accuser, brother looked sidewise at brother, and the friend of many years' standing became a bad security risk: said Gedney from the bench to John Alden, "that truly he had been acquainted with him these many years; and had always accounted him a good man; but indeed now he should be obliged to change his opinion." If the ministers are to be blamed—as they must—for not aggressively combating Stoughton's insensate dogmatism, still only three let themselves become open supporters: Samuel Parris (who appears utterly contemptible), Nicholas Noyes of Salem (who lived to repent), and John Hale of Beverly, who abruptly altered his mind when his wife was accused. Otherwise a fair number of them ventured at least as far as offering testimonials to the good character of several of the accused—an act which required courage. We become convinced that behind these attestations lies more than readily meets the eye when we find a petition from Chebacco parish on behalf of John Proctor headed with the name of John Wise. The mania had, to almost everybody's perception except Stoughton's, run its course when at last Samuel Willard of the Old South was cried upon. Out of the dungeon of the condemned, John Proctor sent an appeal to Increase Mather, Willard, Allen, Baily (endorsers of Lawson's sermon), which told them of the "Popish cruelties" the court was employing in order to extract confessions; the ministers were the last hope. And Thomas Brattle is convincing proof that, aside from the misguided three, throughout the country the elders were dissatisfied, and that, above all, Increase Mather and Samuel Willard were aghast.

Thomas Brattle's Letter, purportedly addressed to someone in England, is dated October 8, five days after Increase's Cases; that it was ever sent is doubtful, and the presumption is that, like Cotton's Political Fables, it circulated through the proper quarters in manuscript. Phips put an end to the court because Increase gave him the signal; Brattle's Letter was not a factor in that decision, but it represents a response to the deteriorating situation which, independent of the ministers, was in step with them—although chronologically no earlier. Brattle was a merchant, a mathematician, and an amateur astronomer whose contributions won him the gratitude of Sir Isaac Newton. The Letter is a milestone in American literature if only for its free-and-easy, its highly literate and satirical tone; in New England it is the first treatment of disaster that steps outside the scheme of the jeremiad. Considered merely stylistically, it may be interpreted as a more open expression than any provincial had yet undertaken of the mentality that had slowly been taking shape in "moderate" circles. Certainly its style was the more accessible to Brattle because, after 1689, through contact with the capital new England had become aware of the revolutions wrought in prose discourse since the days of Cromwell. He did not trouble to wrestle with the problem of how a covenanted nation could make so manifest a gaff as that at Salem. Striking a new note in American polemics, he plunged directly into ridicule of the court, calling its doctrine not a "new philosophy" but "Salem superstition and sorcery." If rhetorical tricks would serve, he would goad his countrymen into the Enlightenment with the sneer that such nonsense was "not fitt to be named in a land of such light as New-England is."

Hence it is all the more instructive to discover Brattle's reason for delaying until October his blast against Stoughton's court: he was reluctant to besmear authority. He did not want to appear as one notoriously given to a "factious spirit." In 1692, this meant only Elisha Cooke's anti-charter party (one has to remember that the witchcraft issue did not, at least at this time, become entangled in the acrimonious political division, and that Cooke's "patriots" did not use it against the Mathers—which shows that they were no clearer in their own minds, and that at this moment no such charge against the clergy would have stuck). But now, as bitter experience made clear that the court, through its fanatical adherence to an idiotic principle of jurisprudence, had shed "the innocentest blood imaginable," Brattle excoriated the "Salem Gentlemen" because, having submitted to the Devil's stratagem, they imperiled that "liberty" which "was evermore accounted the great priviledge of an Englishman." At no point suggesting the slightest disagreement with Increase Mather—rather making clear his full accord—Brattle concluded his Letter with one of the great sentences of the time, which, eschewing the jargon of the covenant, reveals how much the theme of the jeremiads had become, if only through the discipline of disillusion, a secular patriotism: "I am afraid that ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land."

Perhaps I make too much of Brattle's omission of any covenantal consideration. Nevertheless, brief as his Letter is, not only does it fail to summon up that conception, not only does it take the land to be simply "our land" instead of one plighted to God, but it assumes two radical positions: it declares that the (by then) glib confessions of guilt are not to be trusted; and it flatly asserts that the court has perpetrated a disastrous mistake.

One fact the record does indeed make clear: in this situation that very course of action so resoundingly trumpeted in the jeremiads as the only remedy for social ills—confession and repentance—became a dodge. It did not heal the grievance, but compounded the evil. For decades the logic of the covenant had been clear, whether applied to individuals or to nations: one enters into the bond, he sins, and is afflicted, according to explicit terms; he confesses his sin, the affliction is removed, he is restored to the covenant (as a church member under censure is fully restored to the church after public confession). But on August 20, Margaret Jacobs, who had acknowledged the crime and whose accusations hanged her grandfather, recanted her admission, "Having, through the magistrates' threatenings, and my own vile and wretched heart, confessed several things contrary to my conscience and knowledge." At Andover, whither the accusations spread, the whole mechanism became a shambles as six women promptly confessed, only to explain that they had not known what else to say. By the time Brattle and Mather wrote, the jails were full of confessors; several fled, but others confessed wholesale—and were safe. The hunt could have become such a horror as to outrun the worst imaginings of the time had not the very weight of the confessions broken down every effort to secure them; their value depreciated spectacularly (as did the bills of credit) as they became patently devices for eluding what Brattle called the "rude and barbarous methods" of the court. But in this case, what was left, in the midst of such merely politic humiliations, of that sincere repentance called for in the enduring covenant of Abraham?

According to federal theory, an afflicted but unrepenting people invite further affliction. In the opinion of many unprejudiced spectators, said Brattle, the condemned "went out of the world not only with as great protestations, but also with as good shows of innocency, as men could do." By strictly and conscientiously applying the doctrine of the jeremiad, the court created a situation in which meretricious confession went free and sincere denial automatically became guilt. There is no more poignant testimony to the hold of the conception upon the minds of ordinary New Englanders than the fact that those who died because of it remained to the end faithful to it. Records of the court were not published, and so few actually heard the words of Mary Easty, but such "considerate" observers as Brattle were bound to sense the logical impasse to which she had come:

I petition to Your Honors not for my own life, for I know I must die, and my appointed time is set; but the Lord he knows it is that, if it be possible, no more innocent blood may be shed, which undoubtedly cannot be avoided in the way and course you go in. I question not but Your Honors do to the utmost of your powers in the discovery and detecting of witchcraft and witches, and would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world. But, by my own innocency, I know you are in the wrong way.

Her dilemma was precisely her inability to do what, had she been guilty, she would gladly have done; and she could not, like so many others, prostitute the federal theology by cynically confessing. "They say myself and others have made a league with the Devil, we cannot confess." Hordes of reformed witches, instead of testifying to the mercy of the covenant, were becoming an embarrassment, while Mary Easty simply said, "I cannot, I dare not, belie my own soul." Good citizens, caught in the mesh of accusation, had no way to escape except by a deed more evil than any bargain with the Black Man, while repentant witches could smear whomever they pleased with impunity. In a remarkably short time (all things considered) it was borne upon even John Hale that had all twenty of the executed ("some of them were knowing persons") been guilty, a few of them would surely have saved their lives by doing the expected. Whereas for the mass who did confess—"we had no experience whether they would ("some of them were knowing persons") been guilty, a few of them would surely have saved their lives by doing the expected. Whereas for the mass who did confess—"we had no experience whether they would stand to their Self-condemning confessions, when they came to dye." For Mary Easty, having worked herself through the labyrinth with no other guide than her native wit, said to the court, "I would humbly beg of you, that Your Honors would be pleased … to try some of these confessing witches"—which the court never dared do. Indeed, had it come to that extremity, there was reason to suspect that many of them, instead of standing to their profession of evil, would have recanted to virtue!

Cases of Conscience is as important a document in the history of the American mind as Brattle's Letter, not so much because it was effective as because it sprang from the same recognitions. Fourteen ministers signed the preface, making it even more a manifesto of solidarity than Lawson's sermon; they showed their comprehension of the issue by declaring that unless there was convincing proof for any crime, whether witchcraft or murder, God does not then intend that the culprit be discovered. Whereupon Increase denounced spectral evidence, and skillfully turned the possibility that a good man should be so represented into a trial of faith. Those who supposed that the malice of Satan is so constrained that he is incapable of this feat were now accused of being the Sadducees! Confession itself, at least in these realms, was no longer a safe rule; the only reliable ground was such as would obtain "in any other Crime of a Capital nature"—the credible testimony under oath of two actual witnesses.

But—and it is a large but—Increase added a post-script: he did not intend any reflection on members of the court! "They are wise and good Men, and have acted with all Fidelity according to their Light, and have out of tenderness declined the doing of some things, which in our Judgments they were satisfied about." He himself had attended the trial of Burroughs, and could declare it fair. The judges must be believed when they say that none was convicted "meerly on the account of what Spectres have said." Without the postscript, Cases of Conscience would be a bold stroke; with it, the book is a miserable species of double-talk.

We grasp its import only to the extent that we appreciate the habit of speech that grew up in New England as an inevitable concomitant of the jeremiads: references had to be phrased in more and more generalized terms, names never explicitly named, so that we are obliged to decipher out of oblique insinuations what to contemporaries were broad designations. When ministers denounced "oppression" and "luxury," they meant certain people whom they did not have to specify. The controversy between moderates and the charter party must be deduced from what seem like platitudes in election sermons, where minor shifts of emphasis betrayed party maneuvers. This habit of ambiguity, developed out of New England's insecurity, out of its inability to face frankly its own internal divisions, out of its effort to maintain a semblance of unity even while unanimity was crumbling—which became more elaborate and disingenuous as internecine passions waxed—was to cling to the New England mind for centuries. were proud that their sermons never indicated any awareness of controversy. In Boston society today, matters may be fully discussed which, to an outsider, seem never to be mentioned at all. Such tribal reticence only an occasional Thoreau was to defy or an Emily Dickinson to turn into secret triumph.

Hence, for contemporaneous ears, Cases of Conscience was actually a blast against the court. Early the next year, Increase was circulating a letter from an English correspondent expressing surprise that so learned a man as Stoughton "should take up a persuasion, that the devil cannot assume the likeness of an innocent, to afflict another person." Increase Mather would stand in American history with a Zenger or a Lovejoy had he said what was in his mind, had he publicly repudiated the court. But neither he nor any of the clergy could do so—the friendship of the judges and all they stood for was too valuable. A modern political party will write into its platform a plank which in effect disowns the conduct of Congressional leaders—and then support the reëlection of exactly those discredited members. The virtuous act would be to split the party, but Increase shrank from that nobility. He wrote a treatise which by every implication—and in historical fact—proscribed the court, but which still preserved a show of unity among leading citizens by praising what it censured. He may honestly have persuaded himself (as at the trial of Burroughs) that the court was not sentencing "meerly" on spectral evidence, but he could not have written the Cases had he not known otherwise. It is a carefully designed book—courageous but also dishonest. Once his arguments were accepted, the court became (as Increase knew it would) infamous; group loyalty—or, if you will, class loyalty—kept him from saying so outright, and still more distressingly, kept him trying to avoid saying so for the rest of his life. Still, there is honesty in his book, enough to make it a matter of record that the supervisors of the covenant—the ruling class of Massachusetts—had been stampeded into a barbarism as gross, fundamentally, as anything they charged against Louis XIV. And as he defined it, the error consisted not in any charge which later generations would levy, but solely in violation of the standards professed by the Puritan jeremiad.

Increase had long since become a tactician: he had learned much in London that he had not known when preaching on the woes of Philip's War. He was capable of writing his postscript to the Cases even while acknowledging to his journal that innocent blood had been shed. His son Cotton never left the vicinity of Boston, never served apprentice in a wider, a less scrupulous world. Upon him fell the weight of contradiction, and we must say to the credit of provincial morality that he was the one to suffer. Pressed into service by those already apprehensive that things had gone wrong, he was commissioned to absolve them; to his undying infamy, he accepted the assignment. He knew of only one device through which the deed might be justified—the theology of the national covenant. If the Salem Gentlemen (which meant all gentlemen) were to preserve their self-respect—or their solidarity—they must have not so much a defense as a demonstration; whatever had happened had still, by some stretch of ingenuity, to be translated into a proof that New England was the chosen people. He undertook the task when he knew better, and composed that apologia for insincerity which, entitled The Wonders of the Invisible World, has ever since scarred his reputation, even among those who have no notion wherein its actual dishonesty consists.

He had put himself into the position from which he could not retreat by becoming the peerless penman of the colony. In the middle of September, poor Phips was under fire from the home government; he needed help. He asked—Cotton says "commanded"—that Mather prepare a plausible record of some, if not all, of the trials. On September 20, Cotton, who seems not to have known exactly what his father was pondering, wrote an abject letter to Stephen Sewall, brother of Samuel, clerk of the court in Salem, beseeching a transcript of the record; even then he betrayed the paralyzing doubt that hung over the composition of his most deplorable utterance. "You should imagine me as obstinate a Sadduce and Witch-advocate as any among us," he begged of Sewall: "Address mee as one that Believ'd Nothing Reasonable." Propagandists put to an impossible task commence with the prayer that they may first of all manage to propagandize themselves.

On September 22, the final day of the court, after the last executions, Samuel and Stephen Sewall, with Stoughton and Hathorne (who had conducted the highhanded preliminary interrogations), rode down to Boston; they met with Cotton Mather and sealed his fate. Stephen promised to go back to Salem and get the records; Stoughton and Sewall promised to stand by him; Cotton went to his study and, in fear and trembling, began to write. Leaving a blank page for the endorsement Stoughton was to supply him, this tortured soul blurted out his first sentence: "I live by Neighbours that force me to produce these undeserved Lines." If ever there was a false book produced by a man whose heart was not in it, it is The Wonders.

Once started, this man whose pen raced across blank paper at breakneck speed could not stop. His mind was bubbling with every sentence of the jeremiads, for he was heart and soul in the effort to reorganize them. And for days Stephen Sewall did not send the records. Cotton might have waited; a man secure of himself would have waited; he was insecure, frightened, sick at heart (at the end of his manuscript he was again to betray himself: he had done "the Service imposed upon me"). He wrote an introduction, hoping that it would anticipate the records; like a criminal who protests his innocence, the more he scribbled, the more he disclosed. Still no word from Salem: he put in an extract from Perkins; he redacted a sermon (in the vein of Lawson's) he had delivered on August 4; he devised a further jeremiad-like address to the country—and still nothing from Salem. He ransacked his library for stories of apparitions, hoping that they might substantiate what he was about to receive. The book was already swelling much too big—he had to admit—and he had just transcribed the report of a trial before Sir matthew Hale, when, to his immense relief, Stephen's packet arrived. He worked out a version of five of the twenty trials, wrote a few wearied and confused observations, and rushed the monstrous collection to a printer. The book was on the streets about October 15. (Meanwhile, Increase had read Cases of Conscience to the associated ministers on October 3; though it was not published for another month, Phips and the General Court had acted upon it; and Stoughton, who raged against Phips and was never to retract his conviction that a specter is proof of witchcraft, had written his foreword of full approbation for Cotton Mather's zeal and vigor—which he would never have done had the book managed to convey, except by its utter confusion, what Cotton Mather had really believed about spectral evidence.)

Cotton evidently finished his redaction of Stephen Sewall's notes on October 11, for on that day Stoughton and Samuel Sewall attested that it was a true report of matters of fact and evidence. Why did the poor devil not leave well enough alone, publish the reports, and throw into the fire everything he had poured out during the days of waiting? He suffered from a monstrous lust for publication, that much is certain; but the fuller explanation, accounting for the discharge of both his conscious and unconscious motivations, is the compelling force of the jeremiad. He had to find a rationale for his country's ordeal and at the same time a modicum of peace with himself; he did both by forcing this wretched business into the traditional scheme of sin and retribution, which to him was the only form that would give conceivable significance either to New England's tragedy or to his own comprehension of it. He could not let a word he had written out of his trance go to waste; hence he, a stylist who kept even the sprawling Magnalia under some coherent control, published the most incoherent jumble he ever allowed to appear between covers.

In the helter-skelter of prefatory material he made once again every point which in the previous two chapters have emerged as themes in the reconstituted jeremiads. The first part—a good two-thirds of the book—is an epitome of all pronouncements since 1689. We New Englanders, he says, are the most loyal of subjects: hence Their Majesties' people should not be tormented by witches. We fully accept the principle of toleration, and make no distinction among Christians, whether Congregationalists, Presbyterians, or Episcopalians. Somehow at stake in all this are our "English Liberties" and our charter, which is attended "with singular Priviledges," such as choosing our own Council. Cotton could not cope with witches unless he first explained once more that New England was not so bad as the jeremiads had sometimes said: the body of the people were honest and industrious, multitudes here grew ripe for heaven, and were such as could make a right use of stupendous and prodigious occasions. Therefore New England should not have "an Unsavoury and a Sulpherous Resentment in the Opinion of the World abroad." At the same time, this community—founded by a chosen generation of saints and at first "a true Utopia"—was abysmally degenerated; it had become a nest of swearing, Sabbath-breaking, whoring, drunkenness. Consequently it had suffered in increasing severity a series of judgments—Antinomians, crop failures, sickness, revocation of the charter, Indian wars, fires, losses at sea, and now this climax, a descent of devils in propribus personibus. There is something both appealing and repulsive in Cotton's frantic clutching at the old array of sins in order to explain this affliction, at those village vices so long since arraigned: back-biting, scandal-mongering, talebearing, suits-at-law—precisely that cave of winds into which anthropologists of today would search for "causes" of the saturnalia that overwhelmed Salem Village.

Cotton Mather made all he could of the manifest stepping up of the scale of suffering, which would in itself certify New England's special position in the universe: "A Variety of Calamity has long follow'd this Plantation," even unto "a more than ordinary affliction." Against all these there was in 1692, as from the beginning, only one preservation: "REFORMATION! REFORMATION! has been the repeated Cry of all the Judgments that have hitherto been upon us." But, according to formula, because we have hitherto been as deaf as adders, "the Adders of the Infernal Pit are now hissing about us." Here at last was the long-sought, the long-desired consummation of the catalogue.

Except that there was—or there might be—a climax beyond even this: that dreadful culmination which for the Mathers (if not for all their colleagues) would be the truly final resolution. We cannot begin to comprehend this curious volume without perceiving that on page after page, whenever the tension becomes unbearable, the discourse plunges into Chiliastic ecstasy. The witches are signs of the times, of the deathpangs of the Devil; mischievous powers prevail for the moment, but only because his rule is nearing extinction. "The Devils Whole-time, cannot but be very near its End."

In the pressure of these packed moments, on the tenterhooks of anxiety, Cotton Mather made a syllabus for the new jeremiad. In his feverish concentration, everything pointed to one conclusion—the one he had striven for three years to make—that because Satan was gathering his forces for the ultimate assault, the civil magistrates were especially required to suppress any and all disorders, to punish every offender. (However, oddly enough, even in his delirium he kept his recently acquired sense of proportion, and though he termed New England the "center," hastily added, "and after a sort, the First-born of our English Settlements.") Whatever cautions he had studied during the summer, in throwing together these words he went with the tide of his rhetoric and found himself exhorting the magistrates "to do something extraordinary in promoting what is laudable, and in restraining and chastising of Evil Doers."

All of this was in the pattern; and Salem judges, having done their duty, endorsed The Wonders. There was only one hitch, and Cotton revealed it: the convictions had been secured "notwithstanding the Great and Just Suspicion, that the Daemons might Impose the Shapes of Innocent Persons in their Spectral Exhibitions upon the Sufferers (which may perhaps prove no small part of the Witch-Plot in the issue)." Every day he waited for Stephen's transcripts, Cotton heard that this had become "a most agitated Controversie among us," until he was shrieking that the Devil has pushed us "into a Blind Mans Buffet, and we are even ready to be sinfully, yea, hotly, and madly, mauling one another in the dark." This sentence is, obviously, a prime example of that peculiar kind of revelation without explicit admission that had become an acquired characteristic of the New England mind.

What he could not conceal from himself was that the formula of covenant reformation had miscarried. As all good jeremiads had said, the preliminary to release from affliction is confession; now there were confessions aplenty, the jails were full and "there is extream Hazard, lest the Devil by Compulsion must submit to that Great Work, may also by Permission, come to Confound that Work," lest he "intertwist some of his Delusions." Knowing that every moment he delayed, "a common Stream of Dissatisfaction" was mounting to which Phips would have to yield, putting the best face possible upon that prospect by prophesying that a wise magistrate may leave undone things he can no longer do "when the Publick Safety makes an Exigency," Cotton salvaged what defense he could for a court in which he did not believe by the pitiful remonstrance: "Surely, they have at worst been but the faults of a well-meaning Ignorance." We avert our gaze while he, having made what he could of Stephen's notes, fled up the ladder of the jeremiad and soothed himself with fresh dreams of the New Jerusalem, "from whence the Devil shall then be banished, there shall be no Devil within the Walls of that Holy City."

Mather did all this harm to himself after the trials were over, at the very moment sanity was returning. There is no need to apologize for him, for what he did deserves no apology; but we need accuse him only of what he actually did do. He is not responsible for killing Rebecca Nurse or George Burroughs. But he tried to make those killings legitimate when he knew they were murders by dressing them in the paraphernalia of the federal doctrine ("When this is done, Then let us own the Covenant"). He tried it even though he knew that the covenant remedy of confession had become a farce. By gathering the folds of that prophetic mantle around the gaping hypotheses of Stoughton's court, he fatally soiled it. The consequences were not to be fully realized for several years, but the damage was done. Samuel Eliot Morison says that Robert Calef tied a tin can to Cotton Mather which has rattled and banged through the pages of superficial and popular historians. My account is not popular, and I strive to make it not superficial; assuredly, if by tin can is meant the charge that Mather worked up the Salem tragedy, it does not belong to him; but what Calef was actually to charge was that he prostituted a magnificent conception of New England's destiny to saving the face of a bigoted court. In that sense, the right can was tied to the proper tail, and through the pages of this volume it shall rattle and bang.

Sometime during this fatal week, while Increase Mather was seeking a way to stop the court without discrediting it, while Cotton was being forced into defending the indefensible and Thomas Brattle was sickening of the Salem Gentlemen, a wit in Boston wrote a, sixteen-page dialogue between S (obviously Salem) and B (by the same token, Boston), entitled Some Miscellany Observations on òur Present Debates respecting Witchcrafts, and got it printed as though by William Bradford in Philadelphia. It purports to be issued for Hezekiah Usher, and to be written by "P. E." (everybody knew this meant Philip English) and "J. A." (John Alden)—three of the accused who had fled instead of confessing. Scholars say that the type bears no relation to anything in Bradford's cases. A remarkable achievement of the native intelligence, this neglected essay is perhaps a greater indication of the tendency of the society than either of the Mathers'.

Who wrote it? Immemorial tradition says Samuel Willard; in 1695 Calef addressed him as "the suppos'd Author." He has a good record: at Groton in 1671 Elizabeth Knapp put on an exhibition which anticipated the antics of the possessed girls in Salem Village, and Willard (then the pastor) stifled the furor and wrote a clinical report which, had it been studied, might have cured the Salem wenches. He helped Usher, English, and Alden to escape, and he signed Increase's Cases. True, he also signed Lawson's tirade, but, as we have seen, early in the business that had seemed just another jeremiad. At his funeral, in 1707, his successor said that he should be honored for discovering the cheats and delusions of Satan—which undoubtedly meant something more specific to a congregation in the Old South than it does to us. It is difficult to recognize evidences of Willard's Style in the Observations—unless, under the pressures of this terrible moment, and writing secretly, he divested himself of his polemical mode and addressed himself to a more conversational manner.

For the Observations is a masterful analysis of how, in this model for all witch-hunts, confession became acquittal and an opportunity to besmirch others, while denial ipso facto became guilt. B does not doubt the existence of witches; neither does he deny that magistrates should hang them—but cautions should be observed: there must be clear proof. Whereupon S, good federal theologian that he is, asks the crucial question: can you maintain the "Rectoral Holiness" of God in governing the world if the specter of an innocent person be allowed to make mischief? B replies that God in His infinite wisdom may permit even this. Step by step, B drives S to conceding that the evidence of a renegade witch is not to be taken seriously, because even if he be sincere, he cannot be trusted. But when rational argument has all but stripped S of his defenses, he turns upon B with a snarl which comes down the years like a bullet: "You are an admirable Advocate for the Witches." After this, it becomes indeed difficult for B to protest that he is sound on the subject.

For modern ears, an equally dramatic moment comes when S protests that if a trial is to be hampered by too many safeguards, no witches will ever be caught; hence, he says, it is better to convict upon presumption. To which B replies,

This is a dangerous Principle, and contrary to the mind of God, who hath appointed that there shall be good and clear proof against the Criminal; else he is not Providentially delivered into the hands of Justice, to be taken off from the earth. Nor hath God exempted this Case of Witchcraft from the General Rule. Besides, reason tells us, that the more horrid the Crime is, the more Cautious we ought to be in making any guilty of it.

One's admiration goes further out to B (who, let us remember, signifies Boston) as he explains, in the face of spectral accusations, "This is no light matter to have mens names for ever Stigmatized, their Families ruined, and their Lives hazarded," and so concludes that if such creatures as specters are to be believed, then the Devil himself has turned informer, and all good men shall forever be hoodwinked.

To comprehend the predicament of the Puritan intellect in 1692, we should note that earlier in the crisis Cotton Mather preached one of his most stirring jeremiads, A Midnight Cry, in which he trounced New England with the gory threat of Indian atrocities: they "have taken our Brethren, and binding them to a Stake, with a Lingring Heat, Burned and Roasted them to Death; the Exquisite Groans and Shrieks of those our Dying Bretheren should Awaken us." In the intoxication of such external dangers, he publicly committed himself to the thesis that internal traitors had been convicted "by so fair and full a process of Law, as would render the Denyers thereof worthy of no Reasonabler Company than that in Bedlem." But his Diary shows him wrestling with the doubt that corrodes the pages of the Wonders; by June 7, 1694, he had openly to declare that the affliction consisted not so much in a descent of evil angels as in "unheard of DELUSIONS." At the election of May 27, 1696, he was simply nonplussed: "It was, and it will be, past all Humane Skill, Exactly to Understand what Inextricable Things we have met withal." In 1697 he had the honesty in his life of Phips (and later the integrity to incorporate the passage into the Magnalia) to acknowledge that the court had operated upon an erroneous notion; he still, though lamely, insisted that there had been other proofs, but in a last agony could not prevent himself from recording: "Nevertheless, divers were condemned, against whom the chief evidence was founded in the spectral exhibitions."

In the privacy of his Diary, Cotton Mather could simultaneously tell himself, even in 1692, that he always testified against spectral evidence and that the judges were "a most charming Instance of Prudence and Patience." Because he spoke "honourably" of their persons (at least according to his own account), "the mad people thro' the Countrey … reviled mee, as if I had been the Doer of all the hard Things, that were done, in the Prosecution of the Witchcraft." Considering that there is ample evidence in the Diary (all the more remarkable because it is studiously composed) that he never succeeded in persuading himself he had done the right thing (in 1697, after Sewall had repented, he grew panicky lest the Lord take revenge upon his family "for my not appearing with Vigor enough to stop the proceedings of the Judges"), it is the more striking that there are no respects in which one can say that the clergy suffered any immediate diminution of prestige or influence because of witchcraft. Nor did the judges lose standing in the community: neither Stoughton, who never admitted error, nor Samuel Sewall, who, in one of the noblest gestures of the period, took the shame of it upon himself before his church. The real effect of the tragedy is not to be traced in the field of politics or society, but in the intangible area of federal theory, and in the still more intangible region of self-esteem.

Henceforth there was, although for a time desperately concealed, a flaw in the very foundation of the covenant conception. The doctrine that afflictions are punishments to be dispelled by confession had produced at least one ghastly blunder; repentance had been twisted into a ruse, and the civil magistrate, by a vigorous exercise of his appointed function, had become guilty of hideous enormities. Nineteen years later, Cotton Mather was still keeping vigils to inquire of the Lord "the meaning of the Descent from the Invisible World," and was obliged repeatedly to discharge his sense of guilt by advertising, as a fundamental tenet of New England along with liberty of conscience, "That Persons are not to be judg'd Confederates with Evil Spirits, meerly because the Evil Spirits do make possessed People cry out upon them." The meaning of New England had been fixed, by Winthrop and the founders, in the language of a covenant; if henceforth there was so much as a shadow of suspicion upon that philosophy, in what realm of significance could the land hold its identity?

John Hale, we have seen, was one of three ministers who committed themselves; in his revulsion, he went so far to the other extreme that Sewall feared he would deny witchcraft itself. He wrote A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft in 1698; it is a sad, troubled, and honest book, which he could not bring himself to publish, so that it appeared two years after his death, in 1702. It passed unnoted, and is of importance mainly for the light it sheds upon the working of many minds obliged to live with perplexity. For the fact could not be got round: Hale had been trained to a belief in certain articles, and precisely these fundamentals "I here question as unsafe to be used." Nobody in New England had yet uttered such a sentence. Once the process of "a more strict scanning of the principles I had imbibed" was started, once it led to a rejection of any of the principles of aged, learned, and judicious persons, where would it stop? We followed (with a "kind of Implicit Faith") the "traditions of our fathers," and now see that they, "weighed in the balance of the Sanctuary, are found too light." The whole edifice of the New England mind rocked at the very thought that it might be based, not upon a cosmic design of the covenant, but merely upon fallible founders; yet Hale forced himself to recognize the power of conditioning: "A Child will not easily forsake the principles he hath been trained up in from his Cradle."

Frightened by his own audacity, Hale turned back at the end of his soliloquy: because our fathers did not see deeply into these mysteries, let us not undervalue the good foundations they did lay. They brought the land into an engagement with God, and He may even yet not entirely "cut off the Entail of his Covenant Mercies." In 1720, Samuel Sewall had his memories come thick upon him as he read the account in Neal's History, and cried out, "The good and gracious God be pleased to save New England and me, and my family!" The onus of error lay heavy upon the land; realization of it slowly but irresistibly ate into the New England conscience. For a long time dismay did not translate itself into a disbelief in witchcraft or into anticlericalism, but it rapidly became an unassuageable grief that the covenanted community should have committed an irreparable evil. Out of sorrow and chagrin, out of dread, was born a new love for the land which had been desecrated, but somehow also consecrated, by the blood of innocents.

Works Cited

The bibliography on witchcraft, and on Salem in particular, is, of course, enormous (see Miller and Johnson, The Puritans, pp. 826–827). The principal documents used in this chapter are conveniently assembled in George Lincoln Burr, Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases (New York, 1914), and William E. Woodward, Records of Salem Witchcraft (2 volumes; Roxbury, 1864). See also the analysis of Cases of Conscience and The Wonders of the Invisible World by Thomas J. Holmes in his Bibliography of Increase Mather (Cleveland, 1931) and of Cotton Mather (Cambridge, 1940). Holmes's dissection of Cotton Mather's processes in composing The Wonders—the desperate filling up of blank paper while awaiting documents from Salem—marks an epoch in the study of Salem witchcraft; however, the book itself, in terms of "internal evidence," yields up the meaning which for centuries has been staring scholars in the face. Perhaps too many of them have written with inadequate understanding of how an author—or at any rate such a nervous author as Cotton Mather—writes a book.

Richard Weisman (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Witchcraft in Historical and Sociological Perspective," in Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1984, pp. 184–89.

[In the following excerpt, Weisman compares the Salem witchcraft prosecutions with those that took place before them, finding notable differences in the types of individuals accused and in the approaches taken at the trials.]

This study differs from previous investigations of New England witchcraft in that it attempts to deal systematically not just with the Salem prosecutions but with the entire history of witchcraft prosecutions in Massachusetts Bay. From this perspective, the events of 1692 become comprehensible neither as a sudden, aberrational manifestation of witchcraft belief nor as a simple amplification of earlier patterns of prosecution. The difference between the pre-Salem and the Salem prosecutions in terms of both the scale of operation and the social distribution of witches was indeed the outcome of different expressions of the idiom of witchcraft. But to acknowledge this difference does not require that one pattern be defined as normal and the other as abnormal or pathological. The two periods of legal action generated different patterns because they were produced by different audiences who proceeded according to different interpretations of witchcraft.

In the pre-Salem prosecutions, the witch emerged as the living embodiment of those attributes that were most despised by her neighbors. She was not only the agent of misfortune and disaster in the lives of those around her; she was also someone who contravened local norms of propriety and neighborliness. By her violent and intemperate outbursts, she disturbed the tranquillity of the community. In her open defiance of authority, she challenged the very assumptions that made orderly social transactions possible. Typically, she was described as quarrelsome, scornful of her neighbors, contemptuous of her near relations, and vengeful if her unreasonable demands were not met. In short, the pre-Salem witch was a destructive presence in both her worldly and her otherworldly activities.

In contrast, the Salem witches were notable for other qualities. Not infrequently, they were persons who commanded respect both from their family and from members of their community; indeed, several were renowned in the colony as models of Christian virtue. Such worldly displays of good character, however, rendered their activities all the more sinister, for what defined the Salem witches was their involvement in an organized conspiracy against God and the state—and what better way was there of pursuing their real objectives in the invisible world than by inspiring trust and confidence in their dealings in the visible world? As one confessor revealed late in the proceedings, "And the design was to Destroy Salem Village, and to begin at the Ministers House, and to destroy the Church of God, and to set up Satans Kingdom, and then all will be well."1 Where the pre-Salem witch emerged as the enemy within the community, the Salem witch was above all the enemy within the church.

That the pre-Salem and the Salem prosecutions embodied approaches to the problem of witchcraft that were divergent and even conflicting is of historical and sociological significance. Once it is recognized that unified collective action against witchcraft was increasingly difficult to achieve throughout the seventeenth century in New England, the decline of witchcraft prosecutions after 1692 appears not so much a sudden reversal in public policy as an understandable resolution to a long-standing predicament. The coexistence of competing conceptions of witchcraft furnished the ideal conditions for the emergence of doubt and disbelief. The believers who embraced the popular version of witchcraft as represented in the pre-Salem prosecutions eventually came to perceive the actions of the Court of Oyer and Terminer as illegitimate and unwarranted. At the same time, the attitude of clergy and magistrates toward the pre-Salem witch was one of growing skepticism over the sources of village suspicion.

From a historical standpoint, New England witchcraft emerges not as a prime illustration of the idiom of witchcraft belief but as a manifestation of this belief just prior to its disappearance. Sociologically, it presents the unusual spectacle of a form of deviance in which collective mobilization against a perceived problem proved to be more divisive than unifying. Some brief remarks on how the two perspectives complement each other are in order. The Social Sources of Disbelief

To suggest that the different approaches to witchcraft were ultimately socially divisive is not to overlook their potential utility for the groups that advanced them. In directing accusations toward particular members of the community, the villagers of pre-Salem Massachusetts were able to define norms of neighborly conduct and, at the same time, to tacitly condone the breaching of these norms when the responsibilities of neighborliness appeared too onerous. Similarly, the activities of the Court of Oyer and Terminer were also responsive to the social conditions that produced them. The Salem prosecutions are more accurately described as a witch-finding movement than as a witch hunt—the goal of the magistrates was not so much to execute witches as to bring about their conversion.2 By gathering together suspects from the different villages of the colony under strong pressure both to confess their guilt and to rededicate themselves to the church, the actions of the court can be seen as a device to reintegrate the community during a period of pronounced political uncertainty.

Whether as doer of malefic deeds or as arch-conspirator, the witch served the interests of the groups that mobilized against her. In the socially and culturally differentiated society of seventeenth-century New England, however, this harsh utilitarianism was not enough to insulate proponents of either conception of evil from public challenge. The witch may have helped to define the priorities of one group, but attempts to impose these priorities on other groups by intimidation, by force, by threat of extralegal action, or even by judicial fiat were likely to encounter some form of public resistance. It is under these circumstances that the laws against witchcraft became politically dangerous to enforce.

Against this background of conflict, members began to divest witchcraft of its status as an objectively knowable crime with enforceable sanctions. The stages of this process are most readily discerned in the recurring debates over the problem of proof. Efforts by expert diagnosticians such as clergy and jurists to transform the volatile issue of whose interests the courts would serve into the safer technical issue of which tests to apply to the discovery of witchcraft were never entirely successful. In New England, the political problem of deciding whose definition would prevail kept intruding upon the legal problem of how to apply either definition.

In the pre-Salem prosecutions, the cross-pressures generated by popular and theological audiences were a constant source of embarrassment for the court. On the one hand, popular definitions had to be taken seriously if only because of the aggressive manner in which they were advanced. By the time the suspect came to the attention of legal authorities, villagers were likely to have already convinced themselves of her guilt. It required years of tense relationships to produce the malefic witch, and the villagers who appeared in court were prepared to exert strong pressure for a quick and decisive resolution to this tension.

On the other hand, the theological requirements for adequate proof virtually ruled out conviction on the basis of popular testimony. Because the one sure proof from the theological standpoint—the confession—was only rarely obtained, efforts were made to meet the exacting standards of the clergy in other ways. An abundance of texts was produced in seventeenth-century England to assist in the translation of popular allegations into terms compatible with theological criteria, but the manuals with which the New England clergy were most familiar tended rather to widen the gap between popular and theological definitions than to reduce it.

Richard Bernard's influential guide, for example, ostensibly a work of mediation in order to ease the judicial predicament, did not conceal the author's skepticism toward the popular version of the crime. What villagers perceived as the evil deeds of the witch, Bernard interpreted as the product of their own suspicions. Just as the devil could corrupt the witch, so also could he deceive the accuser.

1. [The devil works] a slavish feare.

2. Upon this fear, he suggesteth a suspition of this or that party to be a witch.

3. The suspition a little settled, hee then stirreth the man or woman to utter the suspition of this or that neighbor.

4. The Divell worketh credulity in those neighbors, and withal sets them on worke to second the relation, with openings of these suspicious thoughts to the same partie: and withall, to tell what they have either heard from others, or observed from themselves.

5. Through this credulity, this relation, and rumouring this suspition, from one talking group to another, it is taken for granted that such an one is a witch.3

Such an analysis did more than challenge the validity of village accusations. It justified a categorical devaluation of the legal weight to be given to the popular version of the crime. For Bernard, Perkins, and others, evidences that conformed to popular understandings were granted the status of mere presumptions and evidences that conformed to theological understandings were treated as convictions. The problem of how to elicit convictive proofs from presumptive evidences remained disturbingly unresolved, however. Other attempts to simplify the problem of translation by means of quasi-objective tests such as witch's marks, swimming the witch, and so forth, were rejected either on theological grounds as judicial magic or on medical grounds as unreliable.

The official disposition of the pre-Salem cases well reflected the stalemate between popular demands and theological strictures. After years of equivocal and indecisive verdicts in which defendants were neither convicted nor cleared of suspicion, the magistrates finally arrived at a policy in which they would repudiate popular definitions of witchcraft but respect popular demands for legal protection. Such a compromise yielded verdicts in which the suspect was released from confinement on condition that she leave the community that despised her. In effect, the pre-Salem witch was cleared of charges of witchcraft but convicted on grounds of gross unpopularity.

That accusations of witchcraft generated convictions in the Salem prosecutions should not be taken as an indication that the magistrates who presided in these legal actions were any less scrupulous in the weighing of evidence than were their predecessors who rendered judgments in the pre-Salem prosecutions. To the contrary, the methods employed during the Salem trials represented perhaps the most conscientious attempt in the history of Anglo-American prosecutions to reconcile the conflicting directives of popular and theological audiences. A thorough search was made for evidences that were compatible with both orientations to witchcraft. The allegations of maleficia and other village testimonies were supplemented with examinations for witch's marks as well as evidence of competence in magical arts. Confessions were obtained and the testimony of confessors was used to provide information on other suspects. The spectral evidence that figured so crucially in the prosecution was validated by means of tests and experiments derived from contemporary doctrines of spiritual causation. Throughout the investigation, the magistrates sought to follow legal precedent and authoritative opinion in the formulation of the rules of evidence, to make these rules explicit, to apply the rules consistently, and to collect corroborative evidence wherever possible. As the minister John Hale observed, the Court of Oyer and Terminer approached the prosecution of witchcraft far more systematically than did any previous judicial commission on witchcraft in New England.

It is one of the ironies of New England witchcraft that this most systematic of prosecutions was also the most socially disruptive. For all its rigor, the official solution to the problem of proof was compatible with neither popular nor theological approaches to witchcraft. The replacement of allegations of maleficia with impartially administered tests applied to spectral evidence rendered the actions of villagers, whether for or against the suspect, utterly irrelevant to the outcome of the case. As a result, the magistrates managed to imprison and convict precisely those persons who would have been least vulnerable to suspicion in village-initiated legal actions. The validation of spectral evidence by means of experiments in court did violence to theological understandings about the availability of the invisible world to human perceptions. The consequence of this innovation was to usurp the prerogative of the clergy to define the terms in which God communicated his intentions to humanity. The eventual alliance of popular and theological audiences in opposition to the findings of the court constituted one of the very few occasions in the history of witchcraft prosecutions in Massachusetts in which these two groups were able to find a point of agreement.

Ultimately, Increase Mather's conclusion that the activities of the devil were too elusive for human understanding may be read not only as theology but also as sociology. Human perceptions could not be trusted to reveal the truth about witchcraft, and the rules of evidence that invested these perceptions with validity would have to be revoked. Mather had interviewed a number of the confessors just after publishing Cases of Conscience and, as he listened to their recantations, he learned that the magistrates had been deceived. Just as the villagers had not foreseen that it was their "rumouring" that generated the context of suspicion out of which accusations would later arise, so the magistrates had not perceived that it was their aggressive policies that had induced the large number of confessors.

It was a mark of Satan's subtlety that he did not need miracles to accomplish his evil; the materials of the visible world would suffice. The devil could achieve his goal in the invisible world because the villagers and magistrates could not see how their actions in the visible world affected the actions of others. The invisible world of witchcraft derived from that part of the social world that somehow escaped awareness. Given the human susceptibility to being deceived by this world, the best response to the mystery of witchcraft was silence.


1 Burr, George Lincoln, ed., Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1959), p. 420. See also confession of Mary Toothaker, The Salem Witchcraft Papers, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, eds. vol. 3. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977.

2 I have drawn upon R. G. Willis, "Kamcape: An Anti-Sorcery Movement in South-West Tanzania," pp. 1–15, and "Instant Millennium" by the same author in Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, pp. 129–39 for a general characterization of witch-cleansing or witch-finding movements.

3 Bernard, Richard, A Guide to Grand-Jury Men, pp. 76–79. Published 1629.


Historical Background


The Search For Causes